Elena Ferrante and the History of the Italian Language 

In Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, there are occasions on which a character will make a choice between speaking in Italian and speaking in their natural Neapolitan dialect. The two languages are used in different situations to create a different impression of what is being said or to prevent a listener from fully understanding the information conveyed. The development of various dialects is particularly prominent in Italy, where there are strong regional differences and divergent attitudes towards the use of dialect versus standard Italian, which is used in the media and in education. Since many different forms of Italian evolved from Latin, there is a rich and complex history of how these differences came about and how standard Italian grew to take precedence over the others. 

What is currently known as standard Italian is most closely related to the Florentine dialect from the late medieval and early Renaissance periods. There are a variety of reasons for which Tuscan dialects came to dominate, stemming from the rise of Renaissance humanism and the influx of written and published works in the vernacular. Starting from around the early twelfth century, items such as sermons, legal documents and inventories were being written across Italy, with a remarkably high density in Tuscany compared to other regions across the peninsula. In Tuscany, there was a larger range of documents produced in much greater numbers. The Renaissance is defined by the incentive to revive ancient Classical texts written in Latin, which was used by those in the legal or ecclesiastical professions, but which could not be understood by much of society. Furthermore, there were many inconsistencies between classical Latin and medieval Latin, which increased the appeal of writing in the vernacular.  

Robert Black posits that the idea that Ancient Roman writers had treated Latin in a similar way to medieval writers, reserving it for high culture, was contested in the mid-fifteenth century when various notable humanists put forward the view that Latin was indeed the vernacular, and medieval languages had evolved thenceforth. Therefore, humanists argued, if the Romans had not separated Latin for the purpose of poetry and prose, then there was no need for Renaissance writers to do the same. The impact of this idea was that the impulse to revive Latin as a superior language of antiquity declined and the vernacular had the opportunity to enter the literary sphere. Many highly influential humanists wrote in the vernacular, most prominently Dante Alighieri, Giovanni Boccaccio, Petrarch and Niccolò Machiavelli, expanding the practice of learning using this language. The demand for books written by these authors rapidly increased, and three separate editions of Dante’s The Divine Comedy were published in 1472. A notable development was the rise of the use of the Florentine dialect within education, as even the practice of using Latin as a means of teaching Latin was replaced by translations to and from the vernacular. 

Regardless of how this Florentine dialect overtook the speaking of regional dialects, the process was a gradual and arduous process. It has been estimated that as late as 1860, the year of the reunification of Italy, as little as 2.5% of Italians spoke standard Italian. Adherence to local languages as a part of individual identity was inherited from the medieval era, when Italy was a conglomerate of small regions each with their own governments, customs and modes of communication. During this era, there was a strong sense of competition between political entities, and the local language would have carried a strong sense of pride of origin. The fact that the spread of standard Italian was accelerated following the unification of Italy implies that there is a fundamental link between language and the coherence of a single national identity, although the rise of popular print culture, increasing literacy rates and, above all, the spread of television and radio in the second half of the twentieth century can also be attributed. In addition, The First World War had a significant unifying impact on language, as soldiers from all regions of Italy, speaking hugely different varieties of Italian, met in the trenches and had to be able to follow the same orders. Standard Italian was the common denominator and became the way in which they could understand one another without translation to and from other dialects with which other soldiers could be completely unfamiliar. 

Finally, a particularly important linguistic development of Italian occurred during the years of Fascist rule and was a purposeful change rather than a natural evolution. When Mussolini came to power, there was a specific effort to Italianize the language, which manifested in mandated changes to certain words that bore foreign influences. For example, the pronoun lei was replaced with voi, as the former was seen to carry an impression of Spanish influence, which had entered Italian during a previous Spanish invasion. The perceived humiliation of succumbing to this invasion was a sign of weakness that the Fascist regime could not allow to penetrate the Italian language, and 1555 words and phrases were given alternative spellings. Even croissant became cornetto. Furthermore, variation between different forms of Italian seemed to interrupt unity between people and undermine the strength of a single Italian identity. Mussolini saw the need to reassemble the Italian population under one linguistic tradition and so chose the language associated with high intellect from the glorified Renaissance era, combined with the “cultured” Roman accent. Dialects were banned in film and daily press, and one notice described the use of dialect as a ‘vestige of the centuries of division and servitude of the old Italy’. From here grew the notion of superiority of one form of Italian over another. This manifests itself in Ferrante’s distinction between what is said in Italian and what is said in the local dialect. When a character wishes to seem more intellectual or impressive, they will change to the language they have learnt at school, as betterment through education is a prominent theme in the novel. 

In terms of linguistic evolution, sociolinguist David Harrison argues that languages cease to exist when another language takes over as a dominating force, causing bilinguals to abandon the first language in favour of the other. The first language is gradually eliminated from use as people stop using it to talk to one another and stop teaching it to their children, so that it is not passed onto the next generation and eventually dies. In Italy, this was the case for many very particular regional dialects. Today, evidence of historical dialects resides in the older generations, who are more likely to speak in a dialect that is no longer taught and will thus no longer be spoken following their lifetimes. This process has been happening in a variety of ways for many centuries, but less so in the southern regions, which have been less impacted by the dominance of northern influences. 

Returning to Ferrante’s novel set in Naples, the fact that many characters speak a regional dialect as well as the official language demonstrates how much variety has developed between the two. Giulio Lepschy has suggested that the major change that has occurred since the unification of Italy is not that standard Italian has replaced an individual’s dialect, but rather that Italian has been learnt alongside dialect. This is supported by the way Ferrante refers to speakers of both varieties. It has further been argued that most modern Italians are in fact bilingual, speaking both Italian and their dialect, ensuring that even though the official language is understood, dialects are still used in homes and local communities. 

In My Brilliant Friend, dialect is used to confer a certain familiarity or comfort, as it is commonly spoken within families and close neighbourhoods. In addition, it seems to foster a sense of belonging to one’s community, as those outside would not have understood the exact meaning of some words. Alternatively, dialect can be referred to negatively, as Ferrante occasionally uses it to convey a sense of harshness, describing it as ‘vulgar’ or ‘scathing’. A strong hierarchical ordering of different ways of speaking is also created when one of the protagonists ‘[shows] off Italian words’ as a child in front of their teacher. Thus, the nuances of when and how dialect is used have meaning for notions of violence, friendliness, empathy, status, emotion and identity. The dialect in which interactions between characters happen creates an atmosphere of closeness or distance, giving the reader an impression of their relationship in an intricate socio-linguistic context. Jillian R. Cavanaugh argues that in the second half of the twentieth century, when the novel is set, a knowledge of both Italian and dialect was indicative of high status and education, while the generation after would be expected to be fluent in both by default. This complexity of linguistic development demonstrates far more than an increase in bilingualism. 

The ever-changing history of the Italian language continues to be created in the teaching, learning and speaking of Italian in its many forms every day. It incorporates politics, philosophy, economics and sociology, and demonstrates how history can manifest itself in the present through the choices that individuals instinctively make, reflecting how fundamental language is to the way society is shaped. 

Written by Ruth Cullen 


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